Friday, 13 February 2015
In Conversation with Dan Jones
Welcome to Words with Jam, Dan.
Hello. Hi. Hey.
What do you prefer to call yourself nowadays – historian, journalist or author?
It kind of depends on what’s in my diary on any given day. Mostly I’m a historian – I read, write and talk about the past. How I deliver that varies. I’m pretty much always writing a book. I write a newspaper or magazine article most weeks. I make one or two history documentary TV series a year. I do radio, now and then. I give 15-20 talks a year. Then again, every Thursday I still write a fairly cantankerous newspaper column about sport. Call that a palate cleanser.
If you had to choose just one, which would it be?
I’m happiest when I’m writing. Can I just have that as a catch-all? No? Okay. Books. I’ll take the books.
Tell us a bit about yourself and why you began writing?
Well, I was a big reader as a kid. I preferred to read than any other sort of social interaction. I would read to avoid talking to people. I have learned social skills since. The love of the written word remains. When I was a teenager I started writing for music fanzines. I sketched horrible fiction. I hope none of it survives. Then I did a history degree at Cambridge. I studied under David Starkey for a while and he encouraged me to learn how to write. My weekly reading wasn’t just Tudor history – it was great essayists and modern English stylists. David got me jazzed on Orwell’s essays. It opened my eyes a bit. He showed me it was possible to be a historian and to write good prose – that hadn’t been immediately been obvious from the rest of the undergraduate reading list.
When I finished my degree I had to find something to do. I thought about being a lawyer. I thought about being an academic. I procrastinated. A girlfriend at the time got sick of my indecision. She signed me up for journalism school. So writing became, by and by, a career.
So going back further, why did you become an historian?
Well, a great teacher at school. More great teachers at Cambridge: David Starkey, Christine Carpenter, Helen Castor, Christopher Clark and others. And then, really, a hankering not to lose touch with history. Journalism was (is) great fun, but I wanted to write about history too – and particularly about the middle ages, which I loved. So I pitched a book, got an agent, got a deal. That cuts a long story short, but still. You get the picture.
As someone who has crossed into writing a small amount historical fiction, I know how hard research can be. How do you handle it?
Read. Write. Repeat. There’s no magic formula. The more writing experience I have the more I know what I’m looking for in my research. But you just have to go looking, and learn not to feel overwhelmed by the vastness of what lies out there. Putting it all in order is the fun part.
Tudor history is obviously more popular today than ever, record visitors to the Tower of London etc, much of this down to the glamorising of the period by film and TV. Is that a good thing in your opinion?
Film and TV? Of course it’s a good thing. Historical fiction of all kinds is great for historians, and anyone who tells you otherwise wants their head examining. It’s the gateway drug to the real stuff. I want people to be interested in the period I write about. TV and film hypes people up for learning. That’s a beautiful thing. Long may it continue.
What do you think of writers who fictionalise history – for example Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel or Philippa Gregory’s Tudor novels?
See above. And add George RR Martin to your list.
Any plans to go down the fiction route yourself?
For a long time I was slightly fearful of the idea of writing historical fiction – not because I feared the genre but because I simply doubted I could do it. I’m starting to change my mind. There are some interesting offers out there at the moment and I think it might happen soon. That’s not intended to be as cryptic as it sounds.
The Magna Carta is also much in the news at the moment, you wrote about it in your book entitled "Magna Carta : The Making and Legacy of the Great Charter” just last year – why did you choose this topic?
Well, I don’t think we should live our lives as historians according to anniversaries… but some are too important to miss. The 800th anniversary of the granting of the 1215 Magna Carta is too culturally and politically significant to ignore. It’s a rare moment when a medieval historian can speak directly to the politics of the twenty-first century.
I also had a small personal motivation: the first essay I was ever set at Cambridge, in October 1999, was on Magna Carta. (Thanks to Helen Castor for setting it.) It felt nice to come back to the same subject – and to see if I’d managed to get my head around it in the intervening fifteen years.
You’ve crossed hundreds of years in your work, but if you choose one period in history to live for a month, what would it be and why?
Give me Bill & Ted’s time machine, and let me go a-wandering, please. Not least because I’d like the freedom to nip back to an age of penicillin and paracetamol whenever I needed. You’re pinning me to one period? Give me the 1380s, then. I’ve always been fascinated by the court of Richard II – I’d like to see all that up close.
From a historian’s perspective, and research into ancient Kings, do you have an opinion of how the Monarchy of the UK may change in the future?
If Charles III has his way, there will be some radical changes, not all of them for the better. I shall be watching through my fingers.
What is your favourite historical place and your favourite historical fact?
My favourite place I’ve been recently was the beaches of Dunkirk with a wonderful man called Vic Viner who helped evacuate them as part of Operation Dynamo in the early summer of 1940. We stood and watched families play on the dunes and Vic described quite calmly his experience 75 years earlier of running up and down the beach piling men onto a small rowing boat while being strafed with machine gun fire by German aircraft. It was a humbling experience.
My favourite historical fact? It changes all the time. But I enjoyed working with the British Library on their recent Magna Carta Unification exhibition. I learned that it used to be thought the small slits in the bottom of one of the copies of the charter had been made by King John stabbing it with his dagger. In fact, they are holes probably made by a bookbinder, but that mental image – John, gnashing his teeth and attaching the charter with his knife – really tickled me.
Can you tell us your future writing plans or what period you plan to cover next?
It’s Magna Carta all year. I also have a series about Great British Castles beginning on Channel 5 this spring. My wars of the roses book, The Hollow Crown, moves into paperback this summer. And then… something totally different. Well, slightly different. It’s going to be fun.
See Gillian's review of Dan Jones's 'The Hollow Crown' HERE